As the pandemic hit in spring 2020 and local schools scrambled to build online classrooms from scratch, ASU Prep Digital expanded its existing online classes to grades K-12 and helped Arizona teachers understand how virtual classrooms differ from traditional in-person instruction. Jill Rogier, Head of Schools for ASU Prep Digital, explains why it’s been a year of “tremendous growth,” and why she thinks some form of online learning for all ages is here to stay.
Did ASU Prep Digital see a huge jump in enrollment because of the pandemic?
ASU Prep Digital grew from 800 students last year to 4,200 by the fall of 2020. We also added grades K-8 to our program offering in fall 2020, so, yes! You could safely say it has been a year of tremendous growth.
ASU Prep Digital helped other Arizona teachers in local school districts learn to better handle teaching an online curriculum. What was the most significant thing you had to teach them, and what were their biggest challenges?
Besides simply training teachers on the many web-based tools available to them, the most important thing we convey through our training is that online teaching is not a simple matter of transferring lessons from a classroom to a Zoom room. There are instructional design considerations for online learning that teachers need to understand in order to connect effectively with students.
In a classroom, a teacher can arrange the room and circulate through learning centers to facilitate and monitor small-group engagement, project-based learning and even independent learning. To do the same online, teachers need training not only in the online tools available to them, but also in the challenges they will have to address to design instruction that keeps students engaged and connected. Making this shift is not always intuitive and may require teachers to think very differently about their instructional methods when proximity to students is no longer a matter of walking across the room.
Local districts were still teaching 25-30 kids per teacher in online classrooms. What is the student-teacher ratio for ASU Prep Digital, and does a smaller class size work better for this type of learning?
Our teachers actually have the same ratios — approximately 25-30 students per teacher, which is manageable even online, but the instructional approach has to be adjusted as noted. We also have Learning Success Coaches who support students with social-emotional needs and with learning how to take ownership of their academic journeys. Still, we believe online learning requires a proactive, “high touch” approach to ensure students know they are seen and heard.
Some kids may thrive in an online environment, and for others, paying attention can be a huge challenge. How does ASU Prep Digital address that?
We agree that paying attention can be a challenge for some kids. One key to addressing that challenge is to take advantage of the individualization that online learning offers and free students from being “on the same page” at all times. With leeway, students begin to take more initiative and agency in their learning. We also design the learning to facilitate getting students away from their computers for a meaningful amount of time to engage in physical or kinesthetic activity — especially at the elementary level.
We like to have students connecting with family or friends, and we design to that end. We recognize that parents are not always immediately available to work with their students, so we keep that in mind and provide flexibility in timelines. The elementary program does include “face time” with the kids, with teachers facilitating both “whole class” and small group instruction via Zoom, and the secondary level also includes weekly live lessons. All grade levels also enjoy clubs that allow them to enjoy meeting up around shared interests.
What do you think the future will be for ASU Prep Digital as many schools and districts return to in-person instruction? Will you focus more on middle and high school online classes?
We expect that some parents will opt to return to a traditional school environment while others may remain with us, and we fully respect the individuality of this choice. We also anticipate that some form of online learning will remain an option for school as we know it moving forward, whether we’re talking about a blended environment where students access online programs at school, or a hybrid option where students attend their schools on some days and attend online other days.
I wouldn’t say we will focus more on middle and high school. Now that we have an elementary offering, our focus is just as intent on making our K-5 students as successful as our 6-12 students. What I do anticipate, though, is that our partnerships with local districts, which is already substantial, will grow. We support local schools and districts with training, courseware, systems, etc., to either offer their own tech-supported program or supplement their face-to-face programs with online instructional support from us.
What else is new or changing at ASU Prep Digital?
All ASU Prep schools, ASU Prep Digital included, offer students the opportunity to take college courses at no cost to families. In addition, students at all our sites connect deeply to the different programs at ASU to help them take advantage of all the university has to offer. For instance, at ASU Prep Poly High School, students choose from six different academies, including Engineering and Business for example, that give them special access to ASU programming and support. These small school academies are also ways for students to connect with each other and to share in their passions.
Last summer, we worked hard to offer programs that would allow students to continue their learning despite what was happening in the world. Our Math Momentum course was a huge success! Beyond learning loss, we were so pleased to see that the students actually advanced in their math skills. Reading Refresh and Math Momentum are offered to all K-12 students again this summer. These are prescriptive, adaptive elective courses designed to meet learners where they are by providing either intervention or enrichment. Students will have synchronous and asynchronous opportunities throughout the week and will be actively learning two to four hours a day.
We will also offer STEAM classes to all K-5 students. STEAM classes combine STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] and the arts to provide engaging, hands-on projects and fun learning. These are just a few examples of an expanded list of 100-plus sessions we will offer this summer. The complete list of courses — including a young adult writing camp, several dance and music classes, coding, leadership, film and much more — is available asuprepdigital.org.